One question we might ask ourselves when embarking on a critical study of Tolkien’s work is “are we just reading too much into a story?” Christopher Tolkien argued for the authenticity of such analysis: “Such inquiries are in no way illegitimate in principle; they arise from an acceptance of the imagined world as an object of contemplation or study valid as many other objects of contemplation or study in the all too unimaginary world.”
What we are doing is no less than the good professor did to himself. Tolkien wrote in a 1957 letter, “Naturally the stories come first. But it is, I suppose, some test of the consistency of a mythology as such if it is capable of some sort of rational or rationalized explanation.” Tolkien was ever mindful of the inner consistency of his universe, and that it was not utterly exempt from the rules of the mundane world in which we live. In fact, Tolkien stated emphatically that Middle-earth is envisioned as our world, in a time far before all recorded history: In a letter to Rhona Beare in 1958 he wrote, “I have, I suppose, constructed an imaginary time, but kept my feet on my own mother-earth for place.” In an earlier letter to his publishing company, he explained, “Middle-earth, by the way, is not a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in…. It is just a use of Middle-English middle-erde (or erthe), altered from Old English Middangeard: the name for the inhabited lands of Men ‘between the seas’. And though I have not attempted to relate the shape of the mountains and land-masses to what geologists may say or surmise about the nearer past, imaginatively this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet.”
In shaping his vision of Middle-earth, Tolkien sometimes ran into “difficulties” of a scientific nature. One he frankly and openly admitted was in the area of biology: “Elves and Men are evidently in biological terms one race, or they could not breed and produce fertile offspring – even as a rare event: there are two cases only in my legends of such unions, and they are merged in the descendents of Eärendil.” Given his mindfulness of natural laws, one may ask did Tolkien incorporate astronomical lore and fact into his universe? The answer is, in far more ways than can possibly be explored in a talk of this length. Astronomy helped, and haunted, Tolkien as he set out to develop his universe – or Eä, as the Elves would say.
Inspired by the excerpt above, I wanted to dedicate an image of my own mind. Planets as we know and as elves knew when they walked on Middle-Earth. The universe fascinates me and they have a special place in my heart. I know very little but love it very much. Perhaps, just like the elves did.
If you share the same love for the twinkling beauty from above, you can continue to read the excellent article written by Dr. Kristine Larsen, Professor of Physics and Astronomy of Central Connecticut State University here and check the starmap in full details here.
May Eärendil shine upon your path